Sea swimming: Numb feet and an adrenaline rush - From ‘going for dips’ to completing the Fastnet swim

Brianna Jackson was a novice swimmer a few years ago, but motherhood taught her to prioritise time for herself

“Eighty per cent of the issue with challenges like this is mental – your body can do it, you just need to prepare yourself mentally and then push through it.”

Brianna Jackson isn’t talking about the highs and lows of parenthood – although she easily could be: the Dubliner is mother to a six-year-old and twins aged four, so she knows plenty about thriving in often tumultuous circumstances.

Instead she’s talking about a feat of a different kind when – during the Covid-19 pandemic, when her eldest was around two and the twins were around three months – she decided to become a serious swimmer.

“I was never much of a swimmer growing up but during the lockdowns I started going for dips in the sea with friends,” Jackson says. “I soon found that getting into the water and having time for myself was good for me. The kids were very young, we had no help and I was exhausted, but I decided that for the sake of my mental health, I was going to make swimming a priority. My husband, Kenneth, worked long hours and would be gone from 9am to 8pm, so I would get up at 6am before he went to work and go for a swim.


“Sometimes this was very difficult, particularly if it was dark, cold and raining, or if I had no sleep, but I was always exhausted and that wouldn’t change by not swimming, so, for the sake of my sanity, I made sure to get that small bit of time to myself each day.”

Jackson, who is originally from Seattle, says her strokes soon began to improve, with encouragement from friends, her own resolve and lots of practice.

At first, she didn’t know how to breathe properly while swimming, but she soon taught herself bilateral breathing (breathing on both sides).

“I’ve always been a sporty person and when you’re doing something every day, you’re going to get better at it eventually. I was also able to withstand the cold very well, so although I often couldn’t feel my hands or feet, I was able to push through.

“I went on my own a lot, even though I know you’re not supposed to, but I needed to get out as it gave me an adrenaline rush and fresh start to my day. Sometimes it was a bit scary if the weather changed quickly and I needed to get out of the water fast, or brushing off a seal in the dark can give you a fright. But mostly, it has been great – the swimming community is fantastic and I’ve met some amazing people. Also, getting out so early in the morning, I’ve seen the most incredible and exhilarating sunrises.”

Swimming in near-freezing temperatures may not be everyone’s idea of exhilaration, but she says that a little encouragement made all the difference.

“I have some great friends who helped me to push myself,” she says. “I loved the adrenaline rush because you have to take into account so many different elements – in my head I’m constantly asking myself if I’ve had enough sleep, have I eaten enough, how far am I from shore and am I going to make it back.

“Even though my hands and feet will have gone numb, I know that I just need my core to get me back – all of these things make it more exciting. Then when I get back safely, there are always people to help me to get my gloves on and to get warm again.”

For her efforts, Jackson has just been nominated for an Outsider People of the Year award. The accolade, which is supported by Sport Ireland, recognises people who have achieved amazing feats on the Irish outdoor and adventure scene. The 39-year-old, mother to Lola, Otis and Hopper, has gone from taking quick dips in the mornings as a novice to representing Ireland in the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) World Championships.

Ice swimming is just one small element of Jackson’s success. In recent years, her biggest achievements have included marathon swimming, covering distances of between 10km and 20km. Last year, she completed eight marathon swims. She was the first woman to swim from Howth to Bray, Kish to Lambay Island and Lambay Island to Rockabill Lighthouse. She also completed Fastnet Lighthouse to Baltimore and Galway Bay Blackrock Tower to Aughinish, achieving two-thirds of the Irish Triple Crown.

“I had been hanging around with a lot of endurance swimmers so I wanted to push myself to try to achieve the same as them,” she says. “They all have an incredible mindset. Trying to emulate them has been pivotal in getting me to where I am today.”

“The longest marathon was from Fastnet to Baltimore last August – it took me seven hours and was such a mental challenge. The first few hours were a headwreck as I kept doubting myself, but I had to keep pushing. There is a boat accompanying the swimmers at all times in case things get too much and also to provide ‘a feed’ every 30 to 40 minutes. This consists of peaches or jelly babies and some liquid carb drinks – they’re not allowed to touch, so they have to throw the feeds and I’ll eat them while treading water before starting again.

“After the first few hours, things started to get a bit easier – and about five hours in, I found a sense of calm and there was nothing in my brain, just hand over hand, pushing through the water – it was weirdly relaxing.”

Getting in shape for such incredible challenges doesn’t come easy. Jackson, who lives in Dalkey, trains most days in order to stay “match ready”. “I make sure that I always eat good food and swim daily, either first thing in the morning or after dropping the kids to school,” she says. “At the moment I’m doing about 4km but as the marathon season gets closer, this will increase. I’m also on a hockey team and run regularly, as you need to keep fitness levels up to be able to participate once the season starts again.

“Since teaching myself to swim properly and completing the marathons, I feel like I have obtained the sense of self that I needed. I have achieved something – and that has been incredible, particularly at my age and being a mom.

“Being nominated for the awards is very special – it’s amazing that people have seen what I’ve achieved and have highlighted it. I hope that others will see that just because you have young kids and are exhausted, you can still achieve something for yourself. My advice to others would be to make time to do the things you need to do, whether it’s a swim or a walk or just some time out.

“I am going to keep myself trained, mentally and physically, and when the opportunity for the next big swim arises, I’ll be ready for it.”

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories